How Short Sleepers have Won the Genetic Lottery

Our lives are becoming more and more hectic as we try to squeeze in as many tasks as possible. This then begins to eat into our sleep time meaning we get less rest each night. The recommended nightly rest is 8 hours which is enough to leave you feeling fully rested in the morning, but what if you could function at your usual best with just 4-6 hours of sleep.

This isn’t normal for most of the population, but there is a small cross-section of people who are capable of this. Usually, if you were to obtain only 4-6 hours of sleep each night consistently, this would bring on some significant side effects such as grogginess and fatigue.

This small group of people who can fully function on low amounts of sleep are referred to as short sleepers, and we’ll go through what characteristics they have and how to see if you’re part of this select group of individuals.

How are short sleepers different?

It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between being a short sleeper and being someone who intentionally restricts their sleep.

Although the recommended level of sleep is around eight hours, it’s common that most people adapt to make it through with around six hours of sleep. However, when this is consistently done, there is usually a wave of adverse effects that are typically masked with substances such as caffeine and stimulants.

This reduced sleep is usually a result of our daily work demands and the sleep debt that’s accumulated throughout the week is then restored over the weekend with lie-ins and naps.

Short sleepers can function on 4-6 hours of sleep without experiencing these adverse effects but instead wake up feeling the same as ordinary people do after 8-9 hours of rest.

short-sleeping

Because short sleepers require less sleep each night, they naturally become night owls and early birds which means they’ll be awake until the early hours of the morning but still manage to comfortably wake up before the rest of the population. They are then able to make it through the day without crashing or relying on caffeine to power them through.

A significant breakthrough has been made by the University of California where researchers uncovered a genetic mutation (DEC2 Gene) that may be responsible for providing short sleeping characteristics. This gene is referred to as the circadian rhythm and has been discovered in a mother and daughter duo who regularly exhibited symptoms of being a natural short sleeper.

Short sleepers can enter deep restorative sleep much quicker than the average person so they can get more benefit from six hours compared to the usual person that gets eight. For now, this gene mutation doesn’t seem to be anything that can be replicated at present.

However the lead author of the study Dr Ying-Hui Fu stated that “If we can identify the pathways that can regulate our sleep duration, then maybe someday we can come up with something better than caffeine for those who aren’t short sleepers,”

Christopher R. Jones, MD, PhD, an associate professor of neurology at University of Utah School of Medicine, estimates that 1 in 200 people are categorised as being a short sleeper without displaying the symptoms of a sleep-deprived person such as mood swings or irritability.

Research on short sleepers is still reasonably limited which means the exact causes are unconfirmed, but in medical circles, it’s referred to as a genetic mutation which allows a select number of people to sleep more efficiently which means they need less overall sleep.

Short sleepers also have several other unique characteristics:

  • Short sleepers have a different circadian rhythm which allows for shorter sleep
  • Their personalities tend to be more positive and optimistic
  • They have a higher threshold for pain, both physical and psychological
  • In normal people, sleep deprivation has been linked to weight gain & obesity; however short sleepers are said to have higher metabolisms which makes them slimmer.

Risks of short sleeping if you aren’t a short sleeper

If you aren’t naturally a short sleeper then there are a host of potential issues that could arise especially if you maintain this long term:

Studies have taken place which has concluded that there is a relationship between those who get below their required levels of sleep (insomnia) and hypertension. This then leads to inflammation developing with the blood immune system.

An additional study published in the Nature Reviews Cardiology  found that sleep deprivation leads to changes in internal biological mechanisms including endothelial function, insulin and glucose regulation, inflammation.

A study carried out by the University of Alabama involved 5,666 middle-aged adults who were followed for up to 3 years to study their lifestyle. The study found that those who habitually sleep for under six hours each night have a significantly higher risk over suffering from stroke symptoms despite being of normal weight and being low risk for sleep apnoea.

Naturally short sleepers are often going to make poorer food decisions because they have less energy to prepare more nourishing meals. This is where carbohydrate-rich foods and unhealthy food choices such as Pizza and other fast food become more common. This then increases the likelihood of people who are deprived of sleep gaining unwanted weight.

Research has shown that sleep deprivation amongst young people can also cause problematic side effects. One study found that preschool children who suffer from reduced sleep is an early indicator that they may suffer from obesity in later life. It was also found that napping through the day isn’t an equal substitution for lack of nighttime sleep.

Short sleeper misdiagnosis

If we had the choice, we’d all choose to be short sleepers because imagine what we could do with all the extra hours over the years.

Unfortunately, this means that a common mistake made by people is that they often automatically assume that they’re a short sleeper based on their current lifestyle of restricting their sleep. But there are two main groups of people who misdiagnose themselves as being short sleepers.

People who restrict their sleep

With the daily demands of work, study and other social demands many people have forced their body to function on below 6 hours of sleep. You may feel fine doing this but this is detrimental to your body, and there are several adverse effects of doing this long terms.

If you also need to incorporate coping mechanisms and tools into your life such as stimulants or coffee then really you’re just forcing your body to stay awake when it just needs more sleep.

People who have a sleep disorder

Another common mistake made by people is those that sleep for a restricted number of hours because they are suffering from a sleep disorder such as insomnia. It’s quite easy to tell because the following morning you won’t be feeling anything like your best, and similar to people restricting their sleep you may need assistance by consuming caffeine or taking naps.

How to test if you’re a short sleeper?

Because being a short sleeper is such a natural process there is are little official self-testing processes that can identify you as a short sleeper.

However, one common way of doing this is the following:You will need a week for this to full reset your body to get an accurate result, so it’s best to have a week off work and other commitments or be away on holiday.

Simply go to bed at your usual time when you feel tired and make a note of the time. Don’t set an alarm clock for the morning and make a note of the time that you wake up.

Repeat this over several days, so you get a reliable result.

This will show you how long you sleep for which will suggest whether you’re a natural short sleeper.

Does being a natural short sleeper affect performance?

Despite there being a low amount of studies on the topic, there has been a study conducted in 2014 that has suggested that naturally short sleepers not only need less sleep but also have the ability to display better cognitive ability.

The study  involved 100 sets of identical and fraternal twins recruited from the University of Pennsylvania, and it was found that the twins with the short sleeping DEC2 gene variant slept for one hour less than their counterparts.
From here, the cognitive functions of the subjects were then tested over 38 hours of sleep deprivation. This was part of the Psychomotor Vigilance Test.

Those with the genetic mutation delivered fewer performance mistakes on average while also requiring reduced recovery time once the study had been completed showing that those with the genetic mutation have a higher resistance to sleep deprivation.

Can you develop into a short sleeper?

Short sleeping, unfortunately, isn’t something that you can train yourself into, and you’ll find that if you try to you’ll need to find other ways of compensating for your sleep restriction such as sugar, naps or coffee. But this isn’t the same as short sleeping.

Sleep experts also agree with this notion that you can’t physically train your body to be able to function on less sleep especially without experiencing adverse physical or psychological effects.

There are situations where you will be able to do this over the short term such as in the army, however, over time the quality of your output will diminish especially in high-intensity environments

Closing

If you’re lucky in the 1-2% of the world who can be a short sleeper will ill effects then you have the opportunity to be productive with the extra hours that you have each day. Sleep deprivation can have severe repercussions so if you’re not predisposed to short sleeping then make sure you get adequate sleep each night.

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